Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost | Matthew 23:1-12
Beasts of Burdens
When Jesus finished the tirade that fills this chapter of Matthew, you can almost imagine him walking out of the temple to the sound of the Rolling Stones’ “Beast of Burden”.
It takes little imagination to understand that this is a tirade, though. The entire chapter is one long unrelenting indictment. Jesus declares no less than seven ‘woes’ upon the religious leaders for the burdens that their expectations lay upon the faithful.
If you have been around churches (or, I expect, synagogues, or temples of almost any established faith) for any length of time, then you know what Jesus was talking about. You will also have come to expect the usual twist in the exploration of such a passage—that we are invited to apply Jesus’ words to our own hearts, to our own expectations of those around us, and to the unwanted, unfair and unbearable burdens that our expectations place upon them.
Only slightly less anticipated is the interpretation that we should examine our expectations of ourselves. We not only try to carry the unnecessary burdens of meeting the expectations of other people, but we also stumble under the weight of our own self-criticism, collapse under the burden of our self-expectations, and go wobbly legged from the unmerited idea that we have no intrinsic worth, value, or strength.
There is one over-arching trajectory to be found in Judeo-Christian scripture, and that is the movement of God toward humanity. From the Old Testament images of God as smoke and fire, untouchable, unfaceable, and unknowable, to the Christian revelation of the physical incarnation of God in the person of Jesus the Christ, Messiah, the only unwavering message is one of God loving, valuing, treasuring, restoring, and redeeming all of humanity, each one of the teeming crowd of humanity, and all that we have touched and that has touched us.
So let’s consider Jesus’ tirade from the point of view that it could apply to our cruel criticisms and unrealistic expectations of the people around us. There is a lot to learn from that exercise. And let’s consider Jesus’ tirade from the point of view that it could apply to our own inner dialogue, the cruel criticisms and unrealistic expectations that we lay on our ourselves. There is a lot to unpack right there, and it would be useful.
But while we are at it, let’s also consider the possibility, the slight, often overlooked possibility, that Jesus was yelling at precisely the people he meant to yell at. Maybe, just maybe, we ought to allow God incarnate that much credit. God yelled at whom God wished to yell: the leaders, the teachers, the people with credentials. People like me who presumed to say something about faith. The people who claimed to know something about God. The people in charge.
Jesus is saying we should question authority. What? Did you think they thought that stuff up in the 1960s? There is nothing new under the sun. (Wait, did someone already say that?)
We get to question the people who claim to teach us and who presume to preach to us. In particular, we need to question the teachings of anyone who doesn’t like us questioning his or her teachings. The ones who are worth listening to are the ones who will welcome your questions, even your differing views.
Matthew portrays Jesus, just prior to embarking on all of this scathing criticism of the religious leaders gathered around him, sharing the greatest commandment. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” That is not blind faith. It is open minded exploration. It is bare souled honesty. It is walking toward God with eyes wide open. It is tossing out all of the things we thought we knew about God in order to know God. It is realizing that our preconceived notions of God are rubbish. It is realizing that if God is real, if anything we understand about God is at all true, then this is a God who already knows more bad things about each and all of us than we ourselves realize or can admit, and yet a God who keeps loving us.
Relentless. That is what God’s love is. Relentless. Interminable. Unceasing. Tireless. Endless. Ruthless. And therefore it is also unfathomable. Incomprehensible.
Question anybody who leaves you wondering what you might do to get God to love you. There isn’t anything you can do. It is not about what we do. It is about Who God Is.